• Let's start with this simple fact: The champs are back. Plenty of people, myself included, have been critical of the Steelers. But a win against San Diego did plenty to show the critics that things aren't so bleak. Most importantly, the Steelers flashed a running threat in Rashard Mendenhall. We finally we got a chance to see what Pittsburgh was so excited about.
Let's start by giving some credit where it's deserved: the offensive line. I thought Chris Kemoeatu was especially punishing in his trap blocking, and I loved the way Justin Hartwig controlled San Diego's nose guard. Controlling that center-nose guard matchup is paramount against a 3-4 defense. Mendenhall walked into a situation where he could run downhill all game and I liked the kid's approach: one or two cuts and then downhill, physically aggressively mashing.
• Here's a fallout question: Who's your tailback next week? Easy. Willie Parker is the starter, and if he's healthy you go with your starter. Mendenhall is merely an insurance policy right now; people have to understand that. The situation this week, starting an unproven guy like Mendenhall, told me that Willie must have been in truly bad shape. They played Mendenhall without really knowing what they had in him. And now that they know what they have, maybe Willie gets some more time to heal. But it's premature to think Mendenhall is anything more than a backup. When Willie has his burst back, you make the move back to him.
That said, I've had turf toe and it's especially difficult on a running back. Essentially it inflames the joint on the bottom of your big toe. If you plant to go left, for example, all of the weight of your body is on your right toe, and that's damn painful. You don't have the explosion you want. It's not something a back can hide, even if he wants to hurry back. If Willie's still in bad shape and he tries to practice this week, coaches will see it immediately. You can't hide that.
• The Steelers were only one of two teams in must-win situations this week. The Titans faced the same scenario -- win, or else -- and they fell miserably to an average team. This loss echoes my earlier thoughts: Jim Schwartz is dearly missed. You can chalk up one or two losses to the absence of Albert Haynesworth, but not four. What's happening is bigger than Albert. I have simply never seen a team run against Tennessee like teams are running against them now.
Here's the big picture problem: this team is built on defense, so it's near impossible to rectify the situation with offensive changes. Their philosophy is simple: Run the ball and play great defense. Kerry Collins will make a few plays, but he was never expected to carry the Titans. Once this defense fell apart, the offense found itself needing quick scores. And that's not how they're built.
Vince Young playing is not the answer. Right now, Vince would be a mistake; they'd be throwing in the towel. This team went on a 10-game winning streak last year, so we know it can win in bunches. If the Titans are 0-6, then come talk to me about Vince Young. But not now. They'll be playing the game of their lives against Indianapolis on Sunday night.
• Let's get one thing clear: LaDainian Tomlinson is not threatened by Darren Sproles. Sproles is a change-of-pace back, at best. If anything's threatening L.T., it's his age, 30. But I think he has a lot left. I think that perhaps the Chargers are in trouble for not finding a real every-down guy to back him up, but if he can stay healthy, I think this guy has something left in the tank. In the limited carries he had against the Steelers, I witnessed that classic L.T. explosion: He made people miss in the hole, he had some nice stiff-arms, and I saw him get outside. Fantasy football fans ask this about L.T. all the time. Yes, I think he's still got it.
• Every day, people want to talk to me about fantasy football. Man, I hated fantasy football back when I was playing. It's all people seemed to care about. They would tell me the craziest things: "You didn't score enough touchdowns; you cost me a game; it's all your fault." You can probably guess which game I hear about the most: Week 1 in 2004 against Oakland, I had one yard on five carries -- and three touchdowns. That's the one everyone wants to talk about.
Man, I got some seriously crazy letters in my day. And because of that, I wouldn't play fantasy football today. After what I've been through? No way. It made me hate fantasy football so much.
• A few more quick thoughts ...
-- The Jets were reminded of a simple fact on Sunday: Mark Sanchez is a rookie and he has to be handled like one. We saw a guy who was unaware in the pocket, giving up that fumble, and we saw a sloppy throw in the red zone, staring down a receiver. That's a rookie making rookie plays.
If I'm on his team, this game doesn't rattle me. But it does bring me back to Earth and I realize, "I have to do a better job of helping out. Mark does have a steep learning curve. We have to carry him." That's what I think is going through the heads of his teammates. I've been in that situation before, and all you can do is to heap more responsibility on yourself.
-- More apologies: To Josh McDaniels. Before the Broncos played even one game the public sentiment was against that guy: He was cocky, he was brash, he was young, he looked like a high school kid, and he'd made some boneheaded decisions that broke up a good team. Being a head coach was a little bit over this guy's head.
After Denver defeated Dallas, we have to reassess those decisions: letting Cutler go; the way he handled Brandon Marshall; bringing in Mike Nolan to lead the defense. We have to look at the people he surrounded himself with -- those were some solid choices. He took on his biggest challenge yet with Dallas, and it was a defining moment for this coach. He validated all of those choices. We were all wrong.
-- Denver's win was more of a coming out party for the Broncos than it was an execution of the Cowboys. Still, Dallas isn't a team or a town that's very patient. And that new stadium is putting a lot more pressure on this team. Expectations are suddenly sky-high, almost championship-or-bust. They're heading toward bust. They can't afford to lose many more games, especially at home, and especially this early. As much as Wade Phillips may like his new locker room, that stadium could end up costing him a job.
-- Who else disappointed me in Week 4? Cincinnati. The Bengals were supposed to stomp Cleveland convincingly. You guys want to compete in the AFC North? Come on. Also, Buffalo. The way they defend the run, how can you even mention their name now in the AFC East picture?
-- I'll say this about Terrell Suggs' questionable hit on Tom Brady: If Tom hadn't gotten his right leg out of the way, there would have been a much bigger, much nastier collision. If I were a ref, there was just enough contact, even with Tom saving his own butt, for me to make that call. It was a 50-50 play: If they hadn't flagged it, I would have understood it. They did, and I understood that.
I also understand what Ray Lewis is concerned about. The league-wide approach to handling quarterbacks is all wrong; it sends a terrible message to the rest of the NFL: the quarterback is 10 times more important than everyone else. Does Brady get any special treatment? Obviously I believe that, too. Peyton Manning as well. And that's bad for the game. But you know what? You can't blame Brady for playing within the rules and the way a game is called.